Category Archives: FASHIONING RACE

Beach of Passionate Love, 1950s

Original LIFE magazine caption: Modern Look is supplied by a pretty Chinese visitor from Singapore, Lydia Tai, once of Shanghai.

This photograph has been making the rounds on Tumblr for a couple of weeks. (I found it on a l’allure garconniere.) It seems clear that long-time LIFE magazine photographer Howard Sochurek took this and many other photos on the eastern coast of Malaysia in the 1950s – some sources give the publication date of these photos in 1951 but others say 1957. The beach was then called the Beach of Passionate Love (Pantai Cinta Berahi) but Malaysian officials changed the name to Moonlight Beach (Pantai Cahaya Bulan) to reduce the sexual connotations of the name.

The photos are undeniably beautiful but I’m interested in why the photos were taken. (I’ve learned to be more than a little suspicious of mainstream images of scantily clad women, particularly women of color in “exotic” settings. The last photo – and there are many like these in the series – in which a “native man” figures as scenic background also triggers an Orientalist red flag for me. For more on this, see Mimi’s “Background Color” posts here and here.)  In any case, I want to know more about the context of these photos. So this is a public request – if anyone has more information, please share!

Thanks to Cat’s sleuthing, we now know something more about the images. In an article in LIFE magazine (31 December 1951) called “Life Visits the Beach of Passionate Love,” the journalist writes of this beach:

In Malaya in these times the beach has a special charm, for Pantai Chinta Berahi is part of a small area which remains peaceful and happy in a country widely scarred by guerrilla warfare. The pictures on these and the following two pages record a recent week’s varied activities at the beach, and confirm the widely forgotten fact no people love pleasure more than Asians.

Also, my earlier question about the Orientalist discursive construction of these images seem to be answered by the juxtaposition of  images of Tai (green bathing suit) in her “modern look” with images of women in the “Malay Look” in “native dress.” In the visual language of sartorial Orientalism, “native dress” marks the (non-white) woman as inherently unmodern while the bathing suit signals a liberated and cosmopolitan femininity that is tacitly modern and Western.

More photos from this series below (note these images do not appear in the original article):

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On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction

A black and white photograph of a pair of much-patch black pants, from thigh to below the knee.

From fuckyeahcrustpants.tumblr.com

In my wayward youth –a little over fifteen years now—I had a pair of black, straight-leg denim jeans, a central feature of my small and almost exclusively black wardrobe. Though I wore them day after day, I never washed these jeans. Instead, I let the dirt and the grease accumulate until these and other sediments fused to the fabric, and manifested as a semi-glossy sheen. Like others, I patched some of the inevitable holes from wear and tear with band patches –even though I was not much of a grindcore fan, an Assück patch went over a hole below the left back pocket, because duh, funny!— and fuzzy leopard print fabric.

As a material artifact my denim told a story of a practice of duration, and an aesthetic of devotion — an accumulation of time and purposeful neglect as evidence of my punk pledge. (I no doubt wore these the night my then-best friend and I both swore we would be punk forever, sitting on the floor of his bedroom listening to records out of milk crates.) Though rumors and anecdotes about how to “speed up” the process were passed around, like rubbing motor oil or coal or ink into the denim, some punks dismissed these techniques as cheating – that is, a counterfeit pretense rather than an “earned” practice of duration. Punk pants therefore acted as the measure of continuance of one’s observance; shading into ontology, in this view these pants might even be conceived as a “clock for punk being.” (A horrible paraphrase from Roland Barthes, apologies.)

Mine were nevertheless not crust pants, which take the patchwork aesthetic to even those parts of the pants that would not normally be subject to strain. A tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ethnographic essay called “Crust Pants: The Filth and the Fury” includes instructions for creating crust pants without putting them through the wear and tear that might otherwise mark the passage of time. (There is also a WikiHow entry titled “How To Dress Like A Crusty,” and a dedicated Tumblr, Fuck Yeah Crust Pants.) This is another sort of practice of duration that secures “authenticity” through handicraft, inasmuch as the deconstruction and reconstruction of these pants from their original form is also time- as well as labor-intensive.

Does it matter if the labor is yours, or another’s? Finnish designer Hiekki Salonen, a London Royal College of Art graduate and a creative consultant for Diesel, offers for sale (online at the Convenience Store) these “fully embroidered, hand patched jeans” for 720 pounds (or $1,150): “Hand printed, stitched, appliqued and with unbelievable detail they truly are a future collectible, a timeless design item and a unique take on a classic.” (I first saw these on I’M REVOLTING.)

Both images from The Convenience Store.

I am not bothered by the notion of instantaneous crust pants. Indeed, I find their existence —thousand-dollar crust pants!— fascinating and frankly, funny (I still can’t believe I’m writing a serious post about punk pants). That said, I do wonder how to we got to this point. In querying the thousand-dollar crust pants, I am less interested in whether these pants can be deemed “punk” than in understanding how “authenticity” and other values are attached to forms of labor (symbolic and material), and as well to the divisions between designer, sewer, and consumer that are in this garment renewed.

Because I understood my own punk pants as a practice of duration and devotion, I’m caught by the play of time in these terms: “hand patched,” “future collectible,” “timeless design item,” “a classic.” These jeans both refer to a practice and aesthetics of duration (in the painstaking labor of hand-patching, enhancing the sense of craft and artistry embedded there), and the near-instantaneous delivery to a consumer for whom the exorbitant cost of the purchase includes that practice and aesthetics of invested time. At the same time, none of the value of authorship passes to the sewer whose skilled labor is central to the pants’ appeal. Instead, authorship (or, if this pisses you off, blame) falls to the designer whose creative knowledge is readily perceived here. His is the name we know, even though the profession of design cannot do without the craft of sewing.

Moreover, the fact that these jeans were not subject to wear and tear (the “usual” reason for patching pants) suggests that they will go a further distance, long enough I suppose to become a “future collectible.” What I am still wondering about is the lineage implicit in describing these jeans as a “timeless design,” a “classic” – to what other design aesthetics do these jeans refer if not punk (the recurring trope of tramp chic?), and if there are other paths and histories through which we might arrive at them, how have these paths been rubbed out, or hidden, by a punk story?

An April Interview editorial features Lil’ Wayne styled in what some could consider punk “classics,” including heavily-patched pants with an Amebix and other crust band patches, a tattered mohair striped sweater (shades of Sid Vicious), and a studded denim vest. As Jen from Thunderhorse Vintage informed me, some punks upon viewing the editorial felt trespassed upon by interlocutors erroneously imagined to be “foreign” to punk. Some were predictably outraged that punk is being “exploited” for fashion, as if one of its many points of origins was not Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique. Others felt that cultural outsiders –and, in this instance, outsiders is a category racialized as hip hop, and commodified as less “pure” than punk— had plagiarized and pilfered their subcultural boundary objects, as if punk claims to the authentic are not immediately undermined by any historical sense of its ebbs and flows. Indeed, punk cuts and pastes from other cultures with reckless abandon (and indeed, proclaims its piracy proudly) and with often little regard for the troubling racial politics of “authorship” and innovation when those other cultures are indigenous, Caribbean, Pacific Islander, or African American and Latino. Consciously so or not, putting Lil’ Wayne in crust pants and studded denim vests both demonstrates the historical confluence of both hip hop and punk as contemporaneous urban subcultures, but also their ongoing racialization as separate phenomena. (And the also-manifested virulent racisms in response to a black hip-hop artist in studs –as if black participation in punk was unthinkable!– is unsurprising and revolting.) As the blogger at Una Guerra Sin Fondo astutely schools in “Who’s Wearing Whose Clothes?”

This is what punk fashion is – Punk is white people doing something black and brown already did.

During the late 60s and early 70s street gangs in NYC, especially the predominately Puerto Rican and Black South Bronx. Gang members wore the denim vests, leather jackets, and motorcycle boots that would get a whitewash during the late-70s with PUNK. Generally each gang wore a denim vests with outlaw motorcycle style patches that identified the club the wearer belonged to. – This vest was also decorated with silver studs and patches of skulls, daggers, Puerto Rican flags, black power imagery, and swastikas. Sometimes gang members would also roll around in trash and city scum to make their vests and other clothing look ragged and filthy. This look is associated with the very first appearance of HIP HOP culture, which includes graffiti, rapping, and break dancing. All of these elements from inner-city Black and Latino youth culture.

My punk pants are long gone. Though she denies it still, my mother threw out my punk pants once I left to New York for graduate school. I can’t remember the exact reason why I didn’t bring them with me, but I suspect I left them behind after punk rock broke my heart with its racisms and misogyny. (That’s a long story that can be found elsewhere.) Later, doing another degree in the Bay Area, I half-heartedly started a new pair, but I didn’t wear them as often, and the denim never accrued dirt or grease enough. I couldn’t readily wear punk pants on all occasions, and in any case, my sartorial sensibilities have shifted. (I am right now wearing slouchy black boots, black wool tights, black hoop earrings, an awesome New Wave white and black-dotted dress with a clear perforated skinny plastic belt, a Lilliput pin and UAW Local 2965 “UC Works Because We Do” badge.)

But I don’t need the pants to measure the duration of my ties to punk rock anymore. The “scandal” about Lil’ Wayne in studs and crust pants is not that he wore them at all, but that punk continues to evacuate its own racial histories of both theft and “ownership,” and that feels to me like a broken record I’ve listened to for a long, long time.

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What To Wear If You Are A Pictish Priestess in a ’70s Occult Film; And, Some Link Love

I haven’t much perused fashion blogs for some time now — in the last month at least I’ve reserved most of my allotted blog-reading for Days of Rage, the reinvigorated Wisconsin labor movement, Republican attacks on reproductive health and public education, and the spectacular fallout from the Sexual Nationalisms Conference in Amsterdam. But by chance I visited Fashion Toast, where photographs of the Pamela Love Fashion Week presentation at Milk caught my eye. These photographs and the models’ styling put me in mind of a ’70s occult film, the sort where a convent of devout nuns, uncannily situated atop a cliff in the wild British countrywide, is revealed to be the nefarious disguise for an ancient clan of Pictish priestesses! Awesome.

From Fashion Toast, of course!

Also, Fashion Toast.


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Some link love, in the meanwhile. Catherine Traywick penned this lovely review of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s Beautiful Generation for Hyphen Magazine. These paragraphs in particular point to the importance of Tu’s theses for understanding the geopolitics and economics of much of the fashion criticism generated by 2011 New York Fashion Week:

Though [China and Korea’s] fashion industries are fledgling yet, the transformative effort has plainly provoked anxiety within the Euro-American fashion industry; Nguyen Tu notes that the latter has subsequently striven to define itself as a global innovator by reinforcing the industry’s creative vs “unskilled” dichotomy. Euro-American designers are embracing technology, ever-reinventing familiar motifs and further distancing themselves from the mass-producing masses in an effort to maintain their global dominance.

Indeed, the defensive posturing and industry angst to which she alludes were in full swing at this year’s Fashion Week — in the self-aggrandizing speech of designers, on the ultra-modernized backs of models, and even in laudatory mainstream reviews. Commenting on Ralph Lauren’s collection, for instance, the New York Times Suzy Menkes repeatedly juxtaposed descriptions of the designer’s Shanghai-inspired aesthetic with disparaging references to the “fast fashion factories of today’s China” and Asia’s “Made in China”-quality mass productions.

Asian American designers don’t get off too easily either, falling as they do somewhere between artist and producer, American and foreigner. While critics extolled Ralph Lauren’s and Oscar De La Renta’s modernization of “tourist trap” Asian motifs, for example, they also repeatedly and simplistically categorized the commercial success of Asian American designers as the product of Asian consumption. Reviewing Anna Sui’s collection, Menkes patronizingly notes that “Ms. Sui may have had a big success in the Asia of her family origins, but her heart is forever in the England of swinging London, with its layers of history.” At Vogue, Hamish Bowles curiously remarks that Jason Wu’s “conservative” collection would never be as radically deconstructionist as those of the Japanese designer Kawakubo — notwithstanding the fact that their aesthetics are so radically different that they defy comparison; their only tangible similarity is their (albeit divergent) Asian heritage. Mark Holgale, also writing for Vogue, similarly makes much of Philip Lim’s connections to Asia, attributing the designer’s current and future successes to the voraciously consumptive Chinese — even as he notes that Chinese consumers are just as “familiar with everyone from Altuzarra to Rodarte.”

And Sami Khan writes for Stylecaster on Vogue‘s recent, head-in-sand profile of Asma al-Assad, the “glamorous, young, and very chic” wife of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Add this to the long list of stories about the sartorial semiotics of autocrats’ wives! (When I have a free moment –ha!– I may address this list.) Khan astutely observes,

Despite what we’d like to think, in much of the world, glamour, style and Western-appearance are not synonymous with democracy and freedom. Many of the most brutal regimes in the world are run by families who were educated at fancy universities in England and America, do their shopping in Paris and their vacationing in Saint-Tropez, while back home attack helicopters are gunning down peaceful protesters.

While it’s unlikely that Vogue consciously timed the piece now to coincide with the current wave of protests sweeping across the Arab World, the article’s publication does seem a little unfortunate – especially considering the al-Assad regime has recently gone out of its way to harshly crack down on any democratic stirrings in Syria.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic also writes about Vogue‘s misstep, helpfully annotating the flattering portrait’s blindspots:

The article’s fawning treatment of the Assad family and its portrayal of the regime as tolerant and peaceful has generated surprise and outrage in much of the Washington foreign policy community, which for years has viewed Syria as one of the most dangerous and oppressive rogue states in a region full of them, with the Bush administration dubbing it the fourth member of its “axis of evil.” Bashar’s Syria has invaded Lebanon, allied itself with Iran, aided such groups as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and, for years, ferried insurgents and terrorists into Iraq, where they kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But the worst behavior may be inside Syria’s borders, where a half-century-old “emergency law” outlaws unofficial gatherings and abets the regular practice of beating, imprisoning, torturing, or killing political dissidents, human rights workers, and minorities.

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Some Notes on Fashion’s “Labor Problem”

Asian immigrant women garment workers walking the sidewalk, boycotting DKNY.In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson argues that industrial capital pursues labor regardless of labor’s “origins” while the political state secures its body politic through racial and gender regulations. He observes, “While capital can only reproduce itself by ultimately transgressing the boundaries of neighborhood, home, and region, the state positions itself as the protector of these boundaries.” Ferguson locates certain raced figures –the”transgendered mulatto,” the “out-of-wedlock mother”– as compelling scenes for these competing powers in the twentieth century, to which we might well add the “garment worker” in the new one. 

At the end of 2011 New York Fashion Week, fashion industry stalwarts including Oscar de la Renta, Brooks Brothers, and Diane von Furstenberg joined with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in calling for immigration reforms and easier visa procedures for international workers. Here is the International Business Times:

Mayor Bloomberg announced that eleven leading designers, retailers, wholesalers, and entrepreneurs from the fashion industry have joined the Partnership for a New American Economy to make the case that sensible immigration reform will help American industry and grow the American economy.

The Partnership is an alliance between business leaders and mayors in the US launched by Mayor Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch to influence public opinion and policymakers toward comprehensive immigration reform.

One of their major goals is to pursue the White House and the Congress to enact legislation in order to create a path for legal status of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in the country.

New York City, being the hub of the fashion industry, has over 165,000 undocumented immigrants, accounting for 5.5 percent of the City’s workforce and 31 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

Here is Bloomberg’s statement from The New York Observer, which states the case for capital:
New York City is the fashion capital of the world, and that means thousands of jobs for our City – not only for models and designers, but also for seamstresses, deliverymen, clothing manufacturers and caterers…. But if international fashion companies face too many visa problems in America, they will simply move their billions in revenue and thousands of jobs to our competitors overseas. We need an immigration strategy that supports our businesses, instead of getting in their way.

Yes, we need a broad immigration rights movement that includes full legalization, especially for undocumented and low-wage workers whose access to visa and green card programs is limited (see the Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project’s statement on immigrant rights, for instance). But I’m positive that the answer is not recruiting labor to New York City in the name of fashion –which is also the name of industrial capital– even as the political state disestablishes social services and other welfare provision to immigrant and working-class communities.

We are in the midst of an historic push from the political state to further dismantle labor rights, and these calls for the state to “reform” its immigration laws are not accompanied by demands that the state also cease to produce more poverty. Michael Bloomberg may wish to increase the numbers of immigrants arriving to New York City because the local economy –which is hinged, in these statements, on the fashion industry– continues to “need” low-wage noncitizen labor, but the political state continues to divest its welfare responsibilities at a rapid pace. Diane von Furstenberg may call upon the United States’ self-image as a “nation built by immigrants,” but the garment industry is the historical scene for so much labor exploitation, especially of immigrants of color, and there is nothing in these statements to suggest that labor rights are on the table too.

My Politics of Fashion course just watched Made In L.A. (dir. Almudena Carracedo, 2007), a documentary following three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops on their three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from Forever 21. Forever 21 settled in 2004, but soon moved much of their manufacturing overseas. (With the recent doubling in cotton prices, it remains to be seen if garment manufacturing will shift back to the United States to recoup costs in shipping.) Some clips are online!

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FLOTUS StyleWatch or, How the Fashion Industry/Media Embarrasses Itself

I knew just by reading the headline to Jenna Sauer’s post, “It’s Time to Shut Up About Michelle’s Damn Dress!” that I was going to agree. And that, I do. I would only add one other point that has been nagging me about the recent torrent of op-eds, articles, and blog posts having to do with FLOTUS’ sartorial choices.

What Michelle Obama wears and how she wears it has been part of news cycles since the campaign. Certainly, this isn’t unusual. The public and press have always commented on the First Lady’s fashion choices and style. Her role as an icon of ideal American womanhood is so institutionalized that we even archive some of her clothes in the Smithsonian. But – even taking into account the flack that Mamie Eisenhower took for her bangs – I don’t remember any other First Lady having to endure as much scrutiny as Michelle Obama has. And it’s not just her clothes that’s being evaluated and assessed. It’s every part of her body:

  • arms (should she wear sleeveless dress/tops?)
  • legs (should she really be wearing shorts?)
  • eyebrows (should she soften the arch so she appears less angry?)
  • height (consider the countless words devoted to whether or not she should wear flats)
  • and the list goes on . . .

To be fair, I have to admit that I too participate in FLOTUS StyleWatch –  though marginally, (e.g., posting some of my favorite outfits to the Threadbared FB wall). But recent comments about her clothes seem particularly cranky and finger-waggy to me.

I’m against the policing of any woman’s body. Full stop.  But the racist legacy of policing the bodies of woman of color, in particular, is the reason I’m especially uneasy with the ways in which some in the fashion industry/media are so closely scrutinizing Obama. That they seem to feel so entitled to judge and comment, so self-righteous in their finger wagging is what makes me so uncomfortable. Bridget Foley of WWD actually argues that Obama’s choice not to wear an American designer during the state visit of President Hu Jintao was tantamount to an act of misconduct. She uses the word “embarrassing.” Now that’s embarrassing.

Look, there’s no doubt that Michelle Obama is a friend to Fashion but Fashion People, that don’t mean you own her.

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American Beauty, Of Another Fashion

Read the amazing story behind this and many other photographs at Of Another Fashion

I’ve been thinking a lot about Thread for Thought‘s latest post on the difficulty of defining “American fashion”. Of course, the ways in which the normative relations between fashion, beauty, and nationalism are articulated through racial, gender, and class terms are frequent topics on Threadbared. But what especially struck me about Thread for Thought’s post was that it calls attention to the very problem that sparked the initial idea for Of Another Fashion.

Last June, I wrote a post introducing the idea for a different kind of fashion exhibition, one that explores not only the fashion histories of women of color but also the curatorial and critical neglect of these histories. The response to this exhibition has been overwhelming and gratifying. Moreover, what I’ve learned in the last six months about what it takes to curate even a modest-sized exhibition is mind-blowing.

Set aside for a minute the amount of funding and organization such an exhibition demands (this, I expected, thanks to Sarah Scaturro‘s patient counsel). More challenging and, well, eye-opening is the unintended consequences of the neglect of minoritized fashion histories. I’ve received so many emails from people telling me about objects that would have been perfect for the exhibition but they no longer know where these items are. Many family photographs are torn, bent, or sun- or water-damaged. I’ve been able to digitally correct a few but many are too compromised to fix. In an attempt to provide a glimpse of the fashionable worlds of women of color historically, I’ve also collected various kinds of media images in local magazines and newspapers. Again, because many of these publications do not have the bold faced names of Vogue or the New York Times, they haven’t been safely preserved in carefully ventilated special collections (in which white gloves must also be worn) and so they too are difficult to digitally reproduce in high resolution and thus impossible to enlarge for display.  Those who still possess the sartorial ephemera of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers wanted to share their stories with me but were very nervous – understandably – about parting with them even temporarily for the duration of the exhibition. [And by the way, as I’ve noted on the original announcement and call for contributions, we ask that you first email a photograph of your contribution (be it a family photo, vintage ads, packaging, garments, or accessories).]

Ironically, the difficulty of finding and acquiring objects for this exhibition only underscores for me how much we need this exhibition and others like it. And not just exhibitions but books, articles, lectures, and, yes, blogs and websites too. While I continue to work on securing funding and materials for the kind of exhibition these incredible social and sartorial histories deserve, I also created a digital archive of the visual and textual materials related to the exhibition. Unfortunately, many of these items can only be viewed online because, again, their fragile condition doesn’t allow them to be enlarged or displayed physically. Still, I hope this digital archive will function as a virtual and conservational space where they might be viewed, studied, and of course appreciated.

I’ve just begun to add images to Of Another Fashion – 16, so far. I have at least another 50 more images to go. I think what you’ll find are vibrant, complex, and touching images and stories of histories that, though not quite hidden, have too long been ignored. If you want to contribute to the recovery of these histories and the reimagining of the very meanings, images, and bodies that constitute “American fashion,” please get in touch! Information about contributing can be found here and here.

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“It’s In the Syllabus.”

A woman's torso, she wears a white t-shirt reading, "It's in the syllabus."

Hey, want to see the readings (and the Spring 2011 course blog) for “The Politics of Fashion”? Check it out there, but comment back here, please. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to limit comments to the course blog to enrolled students, and myself — any thoughts?

I know I need to update my clips, but I cannot make myself watch The September Issue (2009, dir.RJ Culter). I already hate The Devil Wears Prada, and I can’t imagine wanting to watch another film about that awful magazine. I’m looking forward to screening Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009); I need to watch Malls R Us (2009, dir. Helene Klodawsky) to see if any part of it relates to the course (I’m hoping it will go with Marianne Conroy’s “Discount Dreams”); and I would like to see Picture Me (2009, dirs. Ole Schell and Sara Ziff) though I deal very little (or at all) with that part of the industry (though doing it through a concept of labor would help). I hear that the “breakout star” of Bravo’s The Fashion Show this season is Calvin Tran, and that he does speak about how his refugee passage informs his relation to the work — perhaps a good pairing with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation? (Here’s the interview, and here’s our review!) I usually show Doo Ri Chung’s segments from Seamless (2005, dir. Douglas Keeve) with Tu’s work. What else is interesting or relevant? Suggestions?

It’s 5 a.m., and I clearly need to sleep lest I ramble on much more. So much love and thanks to Minh-Ha, by the way, for keeping up the good fight on the blog, our Facebook, and our Twitter, while I have been mostly AWOL for the last few months — whew!

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From the Archives: “My Hair Trauma” (1998)

A photograph of two Asian women with big bouffants and miniskirts, probably from the 1960s.

Amsterdam, 1960s via http://www.reisenews-online.de via theswingingsixties.tumblr.com

We received a request for a piece I wrote over ten years ago, from my time in the “olden days” of what we oldsters once called “web journaling.” It’s hard to read some of my old writing without cringing (as I mention in the comments below, I am so on-trend for ’90s nostalgia), and this piece is no exception (I would probably ask more, and different, questions now). Still, the realization that our own hair is political is something of a rite of passage, right?

Earlier today I stood in front of the bathroom cabinet mirror, sewing scissors in hand. I was having hair trauma. (I have hair trauma a lot.) Taking inventory, I glanced down. Sitting on the back of the toilet were the following instruments (of varying degrees) of follicle torture: Royal Crown hair gel. Pantene hair spray. A tortoise shell clip. Ponytail ties. Bobby pins. A year-old plastic container of “Apple Green” Manic Panic hair dye. A blow-dryer/curler. Clippers. Bleach conditioner. A comb.

Standing in my underwear I imagined the possibilities: braids, french twists, a bun, two hair buns (a la anime girlies), the “wet” look, shaved, curled, ponytail, pompadour, mohawk, bihawk, streaks, “Glamour Shots” big hair, gang-girl big hair, buzz cut, mullet, beehive, haute couture. This is the essence of my hair trauma. I got dizzy thinking about it and left well enough alone.

In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”

That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”

What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”

But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.

My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”

The hegemony of white racial bias works both ways: first, to assert an overdetermined standard of Eurocentric beauty and second, to warn against racial inversions or artistry that defy the dominant “white” logic of racial coding and stylization. That is, while we might acknowledge that the first instills a sense of “inferior” worth in people of color, what do we make about the second? I mean, is hair as art, as style, as invention, banned to the Asiatically-follicled? It is already suggested by dominant “common sense” that anything we do is hopelessly derivative: we only mimic whiteness. This is the smug arrogance underlying the issue -the accusation, the assumption– of assimilation: we would do anything to be a poor copy of the white wo/man. Do you buy this? Are you, too, suspicious of “unnatural” Asian hair: permed, dyed, bleached? But if I assert the position that all hair-styles are physically and socially constructed, even “plain” Asian hair, how do we then imagine hair as politics?

Who defines what’s “natural”? Does our hair have history?

What does my hair say about my power? How does the way you “read” my hair articulate yours?

Asian/American women’s hair already functions as a fetish object in the colonial Western imaginary, a racial signifier for the “silky” “seductive” “Orient.” Our hair, when “natural,” is semiotically commodified, a signal that screams “this is exotic/erotic.” As figments of the European imperial imagination, Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, and Miss Saigon are uniformly racially sexualized and sexually racialized by flowing cascades of long, black shiny hair. Is this “natural” hair? Or is hair always already socially-constructed to be “read” a certain way in relation to historical colonial discourse? Is this “natural” hair politically preferable? “purer,” as my interviewer implicitly suggests?

According to a certain culturally nationalist narrative: yes. But it gets complicated once the fetishist acts up and says, yes, I like you better when you are natural/native/other.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when the white folk agree?

When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: “Have you tried an Asian male lover?” “Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!” I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural “pride.” A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, “No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?”

Do I need to be saved?

And because the initial (hair) question is gender-specific, I have to ask: did the interviewer seek to escape scrutiny? I mean, are Asian American men who cut or style their hair participating in an “unnatural” visual economy pre-set by (wannabe) white standards? Why is men’s “loyalty” to racial community not likewise questioned in a parallel scenario? Are Asian American women posed as “culturally weaker,” more susceptible to the seductive lure of whiteness? More inclined to “sell-out”?

I imagine the whispering, the first sign is the hair.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when both (heterosexual) Asian/American men and white folk agree?

It bears mentioning that the interviewer assumed I was “straight.”

So does bleaching our hair necessarily connote a desire to be white?

When I was eighteen my roommate Alicia took a pair of sewing scissors and a stinging, foamy blue mixture of “speed bleach” to my scalp. By the end of the night what was left of my hair was a deep shade of pink, cut close to the skin.

All through high school I had “natural” long black hair. A white man approached me in the park one day, told me he must have been an “Oriental” man in a former life because he loves the food, the culture, and the women. At the mall a black Marine looked me up and down and informed me he had just returned from the Philippines, and could he have my phone number?

I was fifteen. They start on us young.

In Helen Lee’s short film Sally’s Beauty Spot our heroine (Sally) cuts off her long black hair in response to her white boyfriend’s exoticizing gaze. It seems relevant then, that cultural critic Rey Chow notes that the “activity of watching is linked by projection to physical nakedness.” It is an act of violence that “pierces the other” in order to name or own the object-slash-objectified being watched.

I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.

I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”

In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.

But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. That is, because they did not necessarily adhere to the “traditional” homology of racial fetishes -the long black hair, for one- it was “okay” to exoticize me because I was not a “traditional” Asian woman: “North American,” punk, etc. As a result, the p-rock hair only emphasized a (superficially) different but (structurally) similar re-fetishization of my female Asian body as doubly “exotic:” that is, my “other-ness” factor increased exponentially in relation to the “unconventionality” of being a “bad” Asian/American woman.

Then there were those who took no pains to hide it. There is in fact a punk song that wants to rape me. I am the “bad” Asian female who needs to be disciplined with a little white dick. It excites him/you to think that some violence can surely be anticipated in the act of subduing the black-belt “Saigon Siren” he/you would like to imagine me to be. He/you wants to “do” me: I am unsure if this means fuck me or kill me, or both.

How much do I “own” my self-(re)presentation? How do I account for being “misread”?

Sally’s boyfriend said: “You look different.” But he liked her hair “still, shiny and black.”

I don’t deny that some of us grow up damaged by dominant aesthetics and white mythologies. There are plenty of stories circulated among ourselves about how we wanted hair that curled, blonde hair, red hair, whatever. We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one –convinced of her desirability– grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.

So: I refuse to be pathologically defined by an imaginary lack of “good hair.”

My own bleached locks -when I had them– hardly suggested “white” hair. I took no pains to disguise my black roots and the burnt effect of the peroxide was not a “normal” or white-looking hue. I doubt my hair masked the shape of my eyes, my nose, my face. Nor was it meant to. If possible, it became more obvious: who expects Asian features beneath a ragged shock of green hair? About Malcolm X’s former incarnation as a slick zoot-suiter with a red conk, black gay academic Kobena Mercer writes, “Far from an attempted simulation of whiteness I think [] [hair] dye [was] used as a stylized means of defying the ‘natural’ color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference.”

My (racial) difference was exaggerated as a result of my “unnaturally” colored locks, but it was used against my chosen oppositional body politic.

And of course, in punk rock “unnatural” hair is aesthetically conventional for whites and is anyway fast becoming a popular “look” found in clubs, music videos, and Urban Outfitters, so it loses its strategic political meaning as “anti-Establishment” rebellion.

But why mourn the passing of punk aesthetic-as-politics? Purists (most often white, heterosexual, and male) argue that it diffuses their own “difference:” but it’s a difference they so fiercely covet because it is their only difference and for the sake of claiming a marginality, it remains important (to the purists) that they maintain that imaginary line. I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?

What does it mean to dye your hair blue?

Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.

In the context of “radical” racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either “natural” (therefore indicating racial pride) and “white-identified” (“she must hate herself because she’s got a perm”) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation?

Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about “natives:” that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re “authentic.”

How many white people have clucked their tongues at my seeming inauthenticity? Too many.

The white avant-garde likes to think it can break boundaries and transcend the restrictions of that bogeyman called Society. The avant-garde “borrows” liberally from everywhere, plundering our cultural drawers, and pretends it makes something new, but not just new: something more truthful.

In the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong the white American artist is horrified when his model/love interest Suzie, a street prostitute, shows up in his Hong Kong apartment proudly wearing a brand new “Western-style” dress. He calls her a whore and, violently shaking her like he might a child, tears the dress off her maligned body. In the following sequence he gives her an “authentic” Chinese wedding dress and is enchanted by the resulting vision in (virginal) white: restored to a more desirable state of “purity” by the white artist, she is suddenly demure, docile, “properly” Chinese. It is significant that while red is the color of happiness and marriage in Chinese symbology, white is the color of death and mourning.

What kind of death does Suzie Wong die?

What does it mean to be an Asian woman? Or more, what does it take for me to be seen as an Asian woman?

I’ve twice been mistaken for “Amerasian,” or half-Vietnamese, half-white: once by a Vietnamese American girl in a women’s studies undergrad class, once by a white Vietnam vet at a screening of From Hollywood to Hanoi at the Roxie.

And in Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck, trapping dirt & sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as inauthentic as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home,” we are nothing like we might have been, elsewhere. I can’t preserve what’s been irreversibly destroyed, even as possibility, in the process of war, migration, decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity, big-A intact, or more, it eludes me. And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?

It’s still my history too.

Where is my community? Whose identity politics do I follow?

For Christmas I got my mom my hair. That is, I dyed my shoulder-length green hair black. She loved it. It’s been forever. I had been “different” from my mother for too long.

For no good reason I got myself my hair. That is, I took a pair of scissors and cut myself bangs just like Anna May Wong’s, the original Dragon Lady. I aspire to similar great heights, only without Hollywood to script my untimely demise I am intent upon succeeding/subverting.

Do I look Asian enough for you now?

Jaded is a monthly caucus of Asian Pacific queers “+ friends.” This time around I am playing the femme, foregoing jeans and boots for blood-red vinyl and black metallic. Around one a.m. we are positioned somewhere near the stage, our feet numb from sitting on speakers. Hello Kitty flits ghost-like across painted brick walls, her mouth appearing and disappearing according to some silent language she mimes. Across a sea of bodies elevated dancers snake their arms toward industrial piping and disco ball. My also femme-ed friend wrinkles her nose, pointing out one of the club kids in a black bikini and brown velvet pants. Disparaging: “Why is she wearing a blonde wig? That’s kinda fucked-up.”

I shrug because I’ve heard it before. Because she is a queen of the ironic performative herself I am a little cynical about her stance. I promise myself to later show her this really cool piece I’m writing on hair.

Recently I ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore. She is looking for a book on Elvis because she is getting a haircut and is considering a pompadour. Only three inches at the longest, she (a Korean dyke) runs her fingers through her black hair. She tells me, “Some of my friends have been bugging me about it ’cause they say it’s getting too femme-y.” I am forced to consider what my hair, no longer shorn or dyed, relays to other Q&A women.

Is it just a simple matter of becoming the antithesis of the stereotype? Which stereotypes do you choose to not be? Do you affirm the stereotypes even as you (imagine that you) defy them?

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; what do we do when even our friends agree?

We internalize the imperative of surveillance. That is, we police even ourselves, speak our need to be recognizable to the stranger’s gaze, transform our identifications and desires into advertising.

And can you tell I was a refugee by my hair?

In a ‘zine interview conducted between two Asian American women in punk, they make free with the generalizations about how “typical” Asian American women are less daring, less wild in their style choices. This is because (they say) they’re assimilated, unlike the Japanese exchange students who populate the East Village in funky fashions.

They congratulate themselves for being “different” from the “typical” Asian American woman because they are punk rock.

Are there different kinds of “unnatural” hair? I mean, it is qualitatively different to dye your Asian hair pink rather than perming it with Miss Clairol? Why? In either situation, it might be said that you are re-constructing your hair to conform to a certain subcultural standard of what “fits” the respective standards of beauty. If you are going to stake a claim of a “bonus” difference accentuated by punk rock, it’s relevant to ask: what is the qualitative difference when punk and the so-called “mainstream” are both dominated by whiteness, demographically, discursively and follicle-ly?

Question one: Please answer the above in complete sentences or annotated diagrams.

Again: how do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?

Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?

Question two is multiple-choice.
1) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re being radical.
2) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re self-hating.

Or, 3) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, your politics might not be readily available via a visual evaluation or are not otherwise related to the shape/size/color of your hair at all.

Which hair politic do you follow?

I hate the white avant-garde.

I hate my hair trauma, but not nearly as much.

These days I am thinking of chopping off most of my hair and bleaching it white. Again.

I never said my hair would start a revolution.

Can you really grasp my political agenda, my psychological state of mind, from my style choices?

Question three: Please illustrate the approximate percentage of political choice, psychological conditioning, and visual artistry involved in hair-styling with 1) a pie chart 2) a geometric-algebraic formula 3) a ten-page expository essay.

You will be graded on an arbitrary scale according to how well you explore a) the philosophical mandate of the avant-garde tradition b) “serious” Marxist objections to the performative body politic of feminisms and queer theories and c) your own hair history.

Any questions?

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, ON BEAUTY

That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, IN THE CLASSROOM, LINKAGE, THEORY TO THINK WITH

Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)

Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai are among some of the most well-known names in fashion today. Even those who are less diligent about reading industry rags like WWD will recognize their names from widely publicized events such as the Democratic National Convention in which the future First Lady wore Panichgul’s raspberry and black floral silk dress or the Inaugural Ball in which she wore Wu’s white chiffon asymmetrical gown (beautifully!) or from two of the most popular fashion documentaries, Seamless (2005) and The September Issue (2009) in which Chung and Panichgul were separately featured. All of these designers, moreover, have won prestigious awards and recognition from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year – for the first time – all three awards given by the CFDA went to Asian Americans Chai, Wu, and Wang.

But what conditions led to the phenomenon of the rise of the Asian American designer? And what does the success of Asian American designers have to do with Asian markets, Asian consumers, and Asian immigrant labor? Finally, is there such a thing as an Asian American aesthetic – if so, what is it?

These are just some of the questions Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu explores in her new book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press 2011). While numerous lay and professional journalists have written about this phenomenon, Tu’s is the first book-length study devoted to the topic of Asian American designers in fashion. Masterfully drawing  together historical, ethnographic, and visual analyses, The Beautiful Generation is an incisive and elegant examination of “design as an Asian American practice and Asianness as a fashionable commodity.”

Throughout her book, Tu takes great care in tracing the complex tensions and intimacies between “a host of domains imagined as distinct”: Asian American designers and Asian immigrant sewers; transnational labor and consumer markets and local ones; and the symbolic and the material realms of fashion. As she points out, “The presumption of distance and disconnection has had the effect of obscuring the circuits that have always linked together culture and labor, material and immaterial, here and there.” The goal of Beautiful Generation is thus to tease out the institutional and informal exchanges and coalitions that constitute the art and practice of Asian American designers.

The Beautiful Generation is divided into two parts. It begins with a study of the material production of fashion – how Asian American designers have come to fashion and how they understand its nature. Tu’s discussion draws from interviews she did with designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists over the course of eight years. What is revealed in her interviews is “an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy” between fashion designers and garment manufacturers that disrupts common understandings  that pit these forms of labor as separate and distinct from one another.

Asian American designers have been able to navigate the demands of the fashion industry in part by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow them to access important resources and, in so doing, to transform what are usually considered market relations into intimate relations (of kin or culture) . . . These are acts of intimacy not just in the sense that they are private – though certainly they rely on and reconstruct the private domains of the family, with all its attendant problems – but also in the sense that they acknowledge proximity, contact, and affiliation between domains imaged as distinct.

In the second half of the book, Tu shifts her attention from the material production of fashion to its symbolic production. Specifically, she considers how the fashion industry frames ideas of Asianness. Analyzing more than 500 issues of fashion magazines published between 1995 and 2005, Tu argues that the aesthetic popularly known as Asian chic has fostered “in the fashionable public a sense of their distance from and superiority to Asia.” Tu contends, though, that Asian American designers who entered the industry during these peak years of Asian chic occupy a unique position.

While Asian American designers certainly contributed to the production of Asian chic, they failed to hew entirely to its economy of distance, struggling at times to forge connections to Asia (and beyond) and to assert the types of transnational intimacies that it precluded.

The author in 3.1 Phillip Lim.

The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides. More than that, it demonstrates how some designers have imagined “a world of intimacies” among designers, manufacturers, and government elites; political histories and cultural icons; and Asian diasporas and “other streams of internationalism” (a phrase Tu borrows from Lisa Lowe).

It’s an absolute pleasure to recommend this brilliant, timely, and wholly approachable book to Threadbared readers! And it’s not just because we have buckets full of love for Thuy Linh N. Tu but because her book exemplifies precisely the kinds of critical discussions about fashion, culture, politics, and economies that Threadbared is all about.

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It’s Happening, Butterflies!  It’s Happening!

Our much-anticipated promotional giveaway of this fabulous book is here, is now! We’re thrilled to offer 3 lucky readers a free copy of The Beautiful Generation, courtesy of Duke University Press! To enter our drawing, leave a comment below telling us who your favorite Asian American fashion designer is and why – no later than Saturday, December 4. We’ll choose from commenters at random and announce winners via Facebook and Twitter on December 6. Good luck!


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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, THEORY TO THINK WITH